Although I have enjoyed a quarter century of long-distance trail and ultrarunning, I actually had my first exposure to endurance sports on a bike. In the early ‘90s my wife Shelly and I spent our summers traveling the country by bicycle. Then, between 1994 and 1996 we traveled the world by bike, covering 19,000 miles and traversing 16 countries over 24 months. I cut my endurance teeth not on two feet but on two wheels.
Then, as life has a way of doing, things changed. We got busy with our jobs, started a family and, as luck would have it for me, cycling gave way to running, which has been my passion for the last 20 years. Along the way I always knew, deep down, I’d return to cycling. I just didn’t know when, or how.
Interested in your next (or first) epic gravel race? Join CTS for the inaugural FNLD GRVL Race Experience, an exclusive 8-day VIP experience in Lahti from June 4-11, 2023. In the days leading up to the event, we’ll explore picturesque gravel roads, recon the key course sections, enjoy a VIP coffee cruise with F1 Driver Valtteri Bottas, and experience Finnish culture.
It turned out that our middle son, Logan, who is now 23 years old, fell in love with cycling from a very young age and enjoyed some nice results on the junior road racing scene before transitioning to gravel racing, which is where this story gets fun. You see, for me, an aging runner with a few artificial parts, it appears now is the time to come back to the bike.
I turned 55 this past September. For my birthday, my family chipped in and bought me a gravel bike. As someone who last purchased a new bike in 1991, I was in heaven. So, of course, signing up for a race was the next step.
Enter the Spirit World 100 gravel race in the Southern Arizona Borderlands. The brainchild of Zander Ault and his partner Heidi Rentz, the Spirit World is more than just a race. It’s an experience. And it ended up being the perfect place for an old ultrarunner to jump headfirst into this whole gravel cycling thing.
With just a few minutes of daylight left on a Friday afternoon I set up my tent in the Patagonia, AZ town park and enjoyed an evening of great food, live music, and cool people. Race morning I enjoyed an incredible home cooked breakfast spread and nice strong coffee before venturing out on the ride. I savored the middle of the pack companionship so common to ultramarathons, as well as the extraordinary scenery of the San Rafael Valley and the Borderlands. At the 28-mile aid station (which had a nearly identical aid station vibe as all of the ultramarathon aid stations I’ve been to over the years) I looked on as riders of all shapes and sizes joined together in shared suffering and joy that is so much a part of any endurance endeavor.
Eventually, I made it to the finish line back in town where Zander greeted me enthusiastically and for a few moments made me feel like the most important person in the world. From there, I retired back to the town park for more great food and delicious beer before pointing my car north and heading back home with some soreness in my legs and a smile on my face.
Zander, Heidi, the Spirit World, and this whole gravel cycling thing, thank you for reigniting the cycling spark in me. I look forward to the next place it might take me.
By Andy Jones-Wilkins,
CTS Ultrarunning Coach, Top-10 male finisher at the Western States 100 7-straight times